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Costa Rica

Explore Costa Rica’s Natural Wonders

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Internationally renowned for its commitment to eco-tourism, Costa Rica is a true Central American paradise and one of our favorite travel destinations. With the exception of hardcore urbanites, Costa Rica has something to satisfy just about every kind of traveler. Over the years we have covered several such Tico hotspots, but as we get asked so often about this, we thought this destination guide of some top adventure picks could help focus outdoor and adventure tourists on the right Costa Rican vacation.

Arenal Volcano

It’s not difficult to see why this volcano is one of Costa Rica’s most-visited attractions. Towering above the lush forests near the little town La Fortuna, Arenal is a perfect example of nature at its most majestic. When the volcano does erupt, the bright orange rivers of lava spurting out the top and streaking down all sides is an unparalleled experience. There is plenty of hiking and trekking to be done in the area, plus waterfalls and incredibly relaxing hot springs to visit. After some long hikes, we soaked our tight muscles for a day at the best in town, the Tabacon Hot Springs resort, and left entirely relaxed.

volcano arenal from mountain paradise hotelCartago

This town just outside of the capital, San Jose, is nestled near the base of the sky-high Irazu Volcano, Visitors can marvel at the teal blue water in the crater, but also from the top you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans on a clear day. Cartago itself is most famous for its stunning Basilica de Nuestra Semora de Los Angeles, a massive, ornate church which thousands of pilgrims flock to each year. The church is home to ‘La Negrita’, a black Madonna steeped in folklore and legend.

Tortuga Island

Looking for a something a touch more relaxed? Kick back in the tropical paradise of Tortuga Island. Perched in the Gulf of Nicoya, this archipelago boasts powdery beaches and glittering azure waters. Tortuga Island is also an ideal spot for snorkeling and kayaking. You can easily combine a trip out to Tortuga Island with a Nicoya vacation with stops in Montezuma, Santa Teresa and up to our personal favorite beach, Samara Beach.
Montezuma bay & beach

Manuel Antonio National Park

Combining beach and forest into one breathtaking destination, Manuel Antonio National Park is among Costa Rica’s most beautiful natural wonders. Although this is easily one of the most heavily touristed of Costa Rica’s destinations, there is just something about Manuel Antonio that makes us truly love it here. You can hike through the park’s trails and get up close and personal with monkeys, sloths and iguanas (and some very grabby raccoons!), or simply unwind near the coral-fringed bay, which, despite reminding us of a busy beach on Spain’s Costa del Sol, was still one of the most relaxing spots to hang out for the day.
Monkey friends in Manuel Antonio

Tortuguero National Park

If you prefer jungle to beach, head out to the exotic wonderland of Tortuguero National Park in the Limon province. The biological diversity here is, even by Costa Rican standards, incredible. There are eleven different habitats – beaches, swamps, lagoons, mangroves, etc, with specific wildlife living in each one. Bring a rain jacket (and galoshes, and lots of dry socks). This region gets hit with over 250 inch (640cm) of rain each year! The lush forests, winding rivers, spectacular waterfalls make it so worth it, and you might even see a few green sea turtles wandering the black-sand shores.
Turtle in Costa Rica

Sarapiqui Canopy

An easy day trip from San Jose, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui’s tropical rainforest is loaded with ways for a quick wildlife and adventure fix. You can explore the area on a two-hour riverboat trip and watch toucans, monkeys and crocodiles in their natural habitats, and/or catch a few thrills with a specially designed treetop-jumping experience.

Costa Rica is an easy, safe destination to travel through, whether you prefer independent buses or arranging local flights and car hires through companies like American Express Travel. While we always prefer to hit the road and take our chances, American Express travelers are privy to many members-only rewards and perks that make it even easier, and possibly cheaper to explore Costa Rica.

Sunset costa Rica

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Getting steamy in Arenal, Costa Rica

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During our visit in 2011, we focused on Costa Rica’s beaches, visiting Montezuma, Playa del Coco, Samara, Santa Teresa, Manuel Antonio, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo. Our trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest was our one trip into the mountains, and yet, not 100kms from Monteverde was La Fortuna and its famous Arenal Volcano. Luckily this time Dani pushed for us to visit the area. What we discovered is that Arenal is a perfect Costa Rican escape.

lake arenal costa ricaWhat you can’t miss: Arenal volcano

Arriving under the cover of night, we had no idea of the massive volcano looming over the town. While sussing out tour options at a local travel agency, a dreaded, bearded Argentine flirting with the tour guide told us that it would be impossible for us to miss Arenal in the morning, and he was not just boasting in front of his girl. He was right. The volcano is the focal point of the area, from the town of La Fortuna across to the national park, and it is the inspiration for the name of nearly every hotel and restaurant in the area.

Costa Rica Volcano Arenal La FortunaThere are complaints that the town of La Fortuna is ‘too touristy’ but it almost has to be. In 1968, after lying dormant for hundreds of years, Arenal unexpectedly exploded and decimated the small town of Tabacón. For years after that first eruption there were several explosions – some major, some minor – that left the volcano glowing red with lava. Although recent years have seen no activity or signs of it, the warning signs around town about the possibility of life-threatening volcanic activity should be taken fairly seriously.

When the girl in the tour agency heard we had a car, she encouraged us to visit the sights in town independently instead of signing up for a tour. Thankful for her tip, we combined a morning hike in the national park at the base of the volcano 15kms outside of town with an afternoon trip to the incredible La Fortuna waterfall. Colorful toucans and other wild birds soared overhead as we descended over 400 steps into a ravine to the base of the massive waterfall. The pounding water was intense, but the resulting river was lazy, cool and perfect for swimming on a hot day. As we were there later in the day it was too chilly, though by the time we clambered back up those 400 steps we would have appreciated a quick swim. The imposing, mystical volcano, the powerful, pounding waterfall and hundreds of shades of green trees flooded us with an overwhelming sense of the natural splendor Costa Rica has to offer more than anywhere we had visited in the country before.

La Fortuna Waterfall in Costa RicaWhat you must not miss: Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort

After a day of hiking and climbing we couldn’t wait to spend the next day relaxing submerged in the steaming hot pools. Because of the geothermal activity of this volcanic region, La Fortuna is rife with options for hot springs, but the absolute best place to experience this is the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort. Also a five star hotel, Tabacón is consistently listed as one of the best spa properties in the world, and often listed as one of the top ten hot springs in the world. Readers of Travel + Leisure voted is the #4 Hotel Spa in Latin America 2011.

Tabacon Hot Springs Costa RicaThere is no question as to why this is. Tapping into streaming water from the Tabacón river, there are five natural mineral pools ranging from 25-38 degrees Celcius (71-100 F), with a river rushing through the center of the property. Each of the pools and their steamy offshoots along winding pathways are set in lush gardens so that many areas feel semi-private, others downright hidden. The Shangri-La adults only area is incredibly relaxing, with chairs and plush beds spread throughout and meditational music playing just loud enough to hear over the rapids. We dipped in pool after pool and then massaged our shoulders under gorgeous waterfalls looking out at the Costa Rican rainforest, with Blue Morpho butterflies and what look like dinosaurs but are most likely only lizards sunbathe nearby.

Tabacon Hot Springs Spa Costa RicaIn addition to the restaurant, pool area and three bars (one of which is a swim-up bar) is the Grand Spa, the true showcase piece of the Tabacón resort. Clients here have an even higher level of seclusion and connection to nature with open-air treatment rooms set among gardens. Treatments include volcanic mud wraps, coconut skin exfoliation, meditation trails, even a traditional temezcal area where guests can experience an ancient Indian steam treatment process.

No matter how you spend your Spa day, when you get here you will want to stay for a long, long time, so make sure to go ahead and pay the full $95 per person, which gets you unlimited time in the hot springs plus a set lunch and buffet dinner (its $85 for lunch or dinner only, or $65 just for the Hot Springs). Guests of the hotel receive one complimentary Spa treatment, otherwise all Grand Spa activities are charged separately.

Tabacon Hot Springs Spa in Costa RicaTips for traveling to the La Fortuna / Arenal Volcano area

Rent a car

We rented a car and drove over from Samara Beach, meaning we spent the afternoon meandering the road around Lake Arenal, a magical sight that reminded us of the lochs of Scotland more than the primary rainforest that lay just ahead of us.

Once in the La Fortuna area, the town is fairly compact, but sites, restaurants and hotels are spread out along the road, which couldn’t be easier to navigate. Renting the car made the trip to Arenal as easy, comfortable and relaxing as possible. Luckily, we were able to drop off the car near the airport without any additional drop-off fees as well.

Create exactly the trip that you want

Because tourism in this region is well established, visitors here can choose from a full five-star holiday to bare bones basic backpacker hostels and everything in between. For us this meant we were able to travel exactly the way we prefer – choosing to visit sites independently and eating in the many local ‘sodas’, or Costa Rican restaurants, while staying in the excellent four-star Mountain Paradise Lodge and splurging on the spa day at Tabacón. For those looking for a full tour package or budget travelers looking for hostels and other budget travel ideas, this part of Costa Rica offers options for every budget.

Arenal La Fortuna Costa Rica

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Hotel Tip Of The Week: Casa Valeria in Samara Beach, Costa Rica

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Welcome to our weekly Hotel Tip of The Week series. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We post one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves to show you how budget travel can be possible as well as enjoyable.

One sweltering Sunday afternoon in the landlocked town of Nicoya, Costa Rica, we stood at the bus station with hopes to get down to Montezuma, but it was late and the only direct bus driving anywhere toward the beach was headed for nearby Samara Beach. We had no idea this would become one of our favorite Central American destinations when we spontaneously hopped on and an hour later were walking up the main street, our noses sunk into our Footprint guidebook for advice on where to stay. None sounded great and by looking around most seemed far above our budget. On a whim, we checked out Casa Valeria.

Luck was with us that day, as it turns out, as we couldn’t have been more satisfied with our choice of accommodation in Samara Beach. Casa Valeria sits on one of Samara’s two main streets, which runs parallel to the beach and hosts a slew of beach front hotels and restaurants. The hotel is a bit plain compared to its neighbors when seen from the street, but as we poked our head around the large entry gate, we were pleasantly surprised by the view: five stand-alone beach-side bungalows on either side of a yard with palm trees, plenty of tables and chairs, and hammocks further down towards the beach.

Casa Valeria bungalow Samara Beach

Rather than book into a bungalow for $50, we opted for one of the two budget rooms for $30, knowing we would spend most our time out at the gorgeous beach at less than a minute walk from the door to the water. The rooms are simple, but the beds are big, clean and comfortable, the waves lull you to sleep at night quickly. Every room has a private bathroom with a hot water, fluffy towels and creative décor.

Unlike the standard hotels in the area, Casa Valeria offers a practical experience. Rather than setting up an overpriced restaurant on-site, Casa Valeria makes available a large kitchen for guest use. The kitchen is clean, and while nothing fancy, has the necessary dishes, pots, pans and silverware to cook up and serve simple but complete homemade meals. Two showers are set up in the middle for washing off the sand, and plenty of clothesline space is present, outside but well-hidden, for guests to hang their wet clothes to air dry overnight, keeping your room free of that musty half-wet swimsuit smell.

Samara beach from casa valeria

Stand Out Feature: Value for Money Bungalows

The beach bungalows are excellent value for money: for $50 per night, guests stay in a private bungalow that couldn’t get closer to the beach, and yet a five minute walk from a well-equipped supermarket and plenty of restaurants and bars.

Stand Out Feature: A spacious kitchen

The usage of a good kitchen is one of the few advantages of hostel stays compared to hotels, and even though Casa Valeria is geared more toward mid-budget travelers, the kitchen, with its large fridge and plenty of counter space, is a great way to save cash on a at least a couple of meals and certainly on coffee. For budget travelers, Costa Rica accommodation can be pricey, so a beach front hotel with its own kitchen means a couple (or two friends) can quite easily stay here for around $40 per day per couple, food included.

Casa Valeria Hammocks & bungalow

Room for improvement: Lack of Wi-fi

We almost never stay somewhere without Wi-Fi and Casa Valeria was an exception to the rule. One evening as we sat writing (and probably getting more work done without distracting gossip blogs, videos and Twitter) we overheard the son pointing us out to his mother, explaining the need to install wireless internet. His argument was convincing and we’re fairly certain that Casa Valeria will over Wi-Fi sooner rather than later.

Overall

Casa Valeria is one of the best budget beachside hotels that we have seen so far. The owners are a very friendly family who keep the hotel and the yard spotless. The extras (free coffee, clothes lines, beach showers) are the icing on the cake. Casa Valeria embodies one of those strange travel conundrums, where budget hotels at times offer much better free and guest friendly services than their luxury counterparts up the road. It is a place where you can truly forget and ‘log off’ for a week or two – right at the beach and at the same time close enough to all the delicious restaurants, juice bars, nightlife and a small, but quality supermarket to gather ingredients for some cheap and easy cooking.

Casa Valeria GardenLocation: Beach front in town, near supermarket
Price:
Double room bungalow with private bath and hot water $50, budget double room (no entire bungalow) with private bath $30
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BT Friendly: As far as we could tell, yes. Not directly discussed.
Amenities:
Kitchen, hammocks, outside sitting area, coffee & tea, kitchen with fridge, stove, books
Digital Nomad Friendly:
Not until they get wireless internet
Website:
No website, but listed with phone number here.

Sunset Samara Beach Costa Rica

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33 things we love about Costa Rica

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These thirty three things are just a start – there were so many positive aspects of our time in Costa Rica, we could easily list thirty three more! But we’re excited to hear your thoughts on this, too, so please feel free to add your favorite things about Costa Rica in the comments at the end!

1.    Samara Beach
We won’t go on about this one, as we as you to please not go to Samara Beach, but the combination of jaw-dropping sunsets spotting, padding along the beautiful stretches of soft, clean sand and numerous places to enjoy champagne while looking out on to the water makes Samara Beach of the best beaches we visited in Central America.

Costa Rica samara beach Sunset
2.    Comfortable public transportation

After spending a few months holding on for dear life on chicken buses throughout Central America, Costa Rica’s comfortable, clean and organized public transportation just felt good.

3.    Sloths
They might look creepy, but these sleepy creatures sure are cute!
friendly sloth in Monteverde Costa Rica4.    Gallo Pinto
This dish is not just rice and beans…the combination of black beans, rice, and magical spices make this Costa Rican (and Nicaraguan) easily our breakfast favorite.

5.    Casados
Meaning ‘married’, a Casado is a marriage of rice, beans, veggies (and meat) on one plate. This typical, healthy and filling Costa Rican meal is an economical choice and sold at any ‘soda’ or local restaurant in the country. Casados make finding healthy veggie-friendly food a breeze.
casado vegetariano6.    A truly gay-friendly country
The theme throughout this post is the relaxed, accepting and peaceful nature of the country, and this also extends to the acceptance of the gay community…relative to the rest of Central America, of course. Although people not looking for it may never notice, Manuel Antonio is known as a kind of a mecca for gay travelers, with hotels and package deals targeted directly at the gay community, and there are plenty of gay bars (for boys and girls) in San Jose.

7.    So many surfers
There’s nothing better than the relaxed vibe that the massive surfer population brings to the country, plus watching them sprint along the beach and ride the waves in some places is like a surfing championship every day of the week!
Surfer at Playa Cobles Costa Rica
8. The beaches of Manuel Antonio
Palm trees, coconuts, monkeys, and sparkling blue water…how can we not love Manuel Antonio. Just watch out for the mega-strong waves at high tide!

9. Licuados
With the variety of these refreshing, healthy fresh juice mixes in either water, milk or yogurt, we never had a sip of soda while in Costa Rica.

Licuados in Costa Rica
10.    Pura Vida

Different to the international laid-back surfer vibe, Pura Vida is an entirely Tico feeling. This expression, which means ‘Pure Life’ is used as a greeting, a farewell, an excuse and a reason, and incorporates Costa Rica’s positive feelings about living life healthily, slowly, and peacefully (this country has no army and focuses on eco-friendly policies).

11.    Guaro
Oh…how Guaro burns…this Costa Rican grain alcohol can’t possibly compare to Nicaragua’s award-winning Flor de Cana rum, but it’s available everywhere, it’s cheap, and after a couple of shots, who remembers anyway 🙂
Guaro shots & Imperial Beer12.    Cycling along the Caribbean coast
We absolutely loved this day out – we go on and on about it here.

13. The wildlife
From the Pacific to the Caribbean, no matter where you look you spot exotic wildlife in Costa Rica!
Monkey in Manuela Antonio14.    Panaderias
The Ticos love their bread and after a lack of yummy baked goods in Honduras and Nicaragua, we were happy to see a panaderia or pasteleria (bakeries) on almost every corner in Costa Rica.

15.    Punta Uva Beach
Okay, yes another beach – but Costa Rica has got the most gorgeous beaches! This beach just 4km from Puerto Viejo is simply breathtaking.
Punta Uva paradise
16.    Both coasts are beautiful

No matter what side of the country you are on, you’re set for a quick trip to the beach. Nearly all Central American countries have access to both the Pacific and the Caribbean, but that’s not necessarily something to boast about. Nicaragua’s eastern coast is made up primarily of the infamous Mosquito Coast, while Guatemala’s Pacific beaches are not really even worth the trip. Costa Rica, on the other hand, is blessed with miles and miles of beautiful beaches, from the Northwestern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula down to the Puerto Viejo in the southeastern Caribbean region.

17.    Drinking Tap water
Stick your glass under the faucet and let the water pour in! Drinking tap water here is as risk free as at home, and although it took us a few days to trust that drinking the water wouldn’t make us ill as in neighboring countries, it felt amazing to stop buying water everywhere we went.

18. The cloud forest of Monteverde
Monteverde is one of the highest places in all of Costa Rica, nestled between green mountains and like the name indicates, often covered by clouds. The rains cause Monteverde to be one of the greenest places we’ve seen on our travels.
monteverde cloud forest costa rica
19.    Sodas

Sitting somewhere between a food stand and a restaurant, sodas are like local Costa Rican diners. Located on every corner (next to the bakeries), they serve up typical dishes and a licuado for $3-$5, making it possible to travel Costa Rica on a shoestring.  Sodas are as great for your health as for your wallet, as the meal usually contains vegetables, rice, beans, meat (or extra veggies for us herbivores), plus the fruit in the licuado.

20. Flowers everywhere!
Costa Rica is certainly wild in terms of its population of various exotic animals, but the flowers in the country are equally as exotic and found everywhere. We don’t know the names of most the flowers we see, but they certainly put an extra bounce in our step.
Flowers in Cahuita Costa Rica
21.    Butterflies

Costa Rica is home to 1,251 species,  over 90% of all Central American butterflies.  The Blue Morpho maybe the most remarkable one, but at times we were walking on paths being both followed and led by groups of fluttering butterflies.

22.    The Caribbean village of Manzanillo
Manzanillo is a little village on the southern Caribbean coast and it still feels truly Caribbean and unspoilt by tourists.

Manzanillo caribbean house
23.    People watching at Parque Central in Heredia

Heredia is a typical Costa Rican city, unspoilt by tourists, and even though only 11 kilometers from the capital, worlds apart from San Jose! Unlike the capital which has unfortunately begun to feel a bit shady in certain areas, Heredia is safe and relaxed, with a good variety of restaurants, excellent shopping, interesting architecture and a Central Park which is great for watching the Ticos in their day-to-day lives.

24.    Hummingbirds
Costa Rica must have hundreds of thousands of hummingbirds – we saw these tiny little birds along both coasts, in the rain forest, the cloud forest and in the towns. We could watch them forever flying around with their record-breaking wing flapping!
Hummingbird monteverde
25.    The fantastic Costa Rican coffee

The coffee here is known to be one of the best coffees in the world, and drinking it in Monteverde, surrounded by coffee plants, fresh from the farm, made it taste even better.

26. Stella’s Bakery in Monteverde
Far away from the most populated area of Santa Elena, Stella’s bakery is set along the road to Monteverde and it is more than worth stopping by. Stella’s Dulce de leche strudel really is to die for, and there are so many other goodies (both savory and sweet) to choose from, you will probably end up taking something home for later or returning the next day.
stellas bakery Dulce de leche strudel
27.    Waterfalls

Waterfalls here are practically a dime a dozen, except they are some of the most amazing we have seen.  You pass them just driving down the road or hiking along the beaches and it never gets old!

28.    Cabinas el Pueblo Hostel in Monteverde
$10 per person for a clean room and breakfast included, plus a staff that provides priceless info about Monteverde, we can certainly recommend staying at the family-run, centrally-located Cabinas el Pueblo Hostel in Santa Elena, Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Cabinas El Pueblo Monteverde Costa Rica
29.    The cheeky monkey families in Cahuita

The little village of Cahuita has a National Park which can be visited free of charge. Much emptier than Costa Rica’s more famous Manuel Antonio National Park, you can sit down anywhere and watch the monkey families with the baby monkeys swinging through the tree tops.

30. Miles of deserted beach near Montezuma
We might have been disappointed by Montezuma’s development but we were happy as clams about the endless stretches of sandy beaches along the coast. You can walk for miles and miles without meeting another soul.
Montezuma beach in the morning
31.    Taco Bell

Yes. We went to Taco Bell. Twice. And yes, the Americanization of the country is a shameless trainwreck, but after months and months of rice & beans, we couldn’t pass up a cheesy Gordita crunch!

32. The bronze statues in San Jose
Costa Rica’s capital didn’t do much for us, but we found some fantastic bronze statues by several well known artists (such as Botero) throughout the downtown.

Sculptures in san jose costa rica
33.    The friendly Ticos

Costa Ricans are super friendly and welcoming. Proud of their beautiful country, they are always happy to chat with travelers or tell you which places you should check out during your visit. These great people are affectionately known as ticos, for their endearing and unique use of the Spanish diminutive – from momento, instead of adding ‘ito’ – momentito, Costa Ricans add ‘ico’ – momentico.

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Costa Rica on a Shoestring

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Costa Rica is the gem in Central America’s tourism crown: lush, green jungles, wild animals, breathtaking beaches and a well-developed infrastructure make a trip to Costa Rica as easy as it can be adventurous, suitable for many different types of visitors. The level of development, however, has also raised prices on goods and services, hotel rates and transportation to a level that most budget travelers (falsely) believe to be out of their range. It is certainly easy to plow through some serious cash here, but with a bit of planning ahead, Costa Rica can be nearly as inexpensive as its neighbors.

Puerto Viejo palm tree beach Costa Rica
Many travelers we met along the way spoke with disdain about Costa Rica being over-priced and too expensive – those who were the most outspoken on the topic had opted to skip the country altogether. Since I had lived here for a year back in the day, there was no question that we would travel through. What we intended to be a two week trip was extended to three. In that time, our Costa Rica travel budget ended up to be less than both our Guatemala and Nicaragua budgets, coming in at just under $27 per person per day (based on two sharing accommodation). Read on for a few simple tips on how to travel through Costa Rica on a shoestring budget.

Take the bus

Taking private shuttles or taxis to get around can easily eat through your budget, but this can be easily avoided by taking the bus. The bus system in Costa Rica is organized, and the buses are safe, comfortable and nearly at a North American standard. The chicken buses (old American school buses) seen throughout the rest of Central America are few and far between here. The buses run between all the major towns and on schedule, and while a private shuttle can easily cost from $40 to $75, a local bus charges less than $10 for the same route.

Eat at a Soda

Found everywhere throughout Costa Rica, a ‘soda’ is a typical Costa Rican restaurant which serves up ‘comida tipica’ or a menu of typical Costa Rican fare, mainly in various forms of casados: a huge plate of rice, beans, red and white cabbage salad, pasta and meat, or extra vegetables for vegetarians. While a restaurant in a tourist spot often charges between $10 and $15 per person per meal, the price of a ‘casado’ varies between $2 and $7, depending on the casado you choose and the place you are at – sodas in a tourist destinations obviously charge much more than in cities like Heredia or Liberia.

A soda in Costa Rica

Drink Tap water

Unlike the rest of Central America, drinking the tap water in Costa Rica is perfectly safe. If you have been traveling throughout the region, you might think only a crazy person would fill up bottles with tap water, but the water in nearly every Costa Rican town is drinkable (ask at your hotel/hostel if you’re unsure). With bottled water costing between $1 and $3 a bottle, refilling your own bottles will save you a hefty sum of pocket change.

Buy beer in the shop, not the bar

At $2.50 – $3.50 a bottle in most bars, beer in Costa Rica can quickly eat through your daily budget. Of course in a country with so many relaxing beaches, sometimes a beer is a must. Plan ahead and grab yourself a few cold cans at a local shop for half the price and enjoy your beers on the beach just a few meters past the beach bar itself.

Costa Rica Imperial beer

Book a trip for the Off-season

Costa Rica is a popular tourist destination for North Americans and Europeans alike, and prices shoot up during Holidays, Christmas and between January and March. Planning a trip to Costa Rica during the low season, May to November, can save you as much as 50 per cent on hotels and flights. The low season is also partially the rainy season, but with the exception of a few rainy weeks, downpours usually only last a couple of hours in the morning and the sun shines for the rest of the day.

Opt for a hostel

The hostel scene has come a long way from the dingy twelve-bed dorm room, and not only are hostels cleaner, brighter and more affordable than ever, most also offer private double rooms for a fraction of what a hotel costs. We stayed in countless small hostels, run by people who care about their guests and take pride in offering a cozy, clean place to stay. Some hostels even offer a swimming pool, a bar, a lounge, books, board games, and free breakfast. You are also more likely to meet other travelers at the bar or in the common areas, whereas most hotels have a much more anonymous feeling to them. A private room in a hostel costs between $20 and $30 per couple, whereas a hotel room runs from $50 upwards.

Hostel Breakfast at Costa Linda Manuel Antonio

Budget Travel Tip: With such a well-developed tourism industry, National Park tours and adventure activities in Costa Rica are usually very much worth the money, so make sure to budget in $15 – $75 per tour during your time in the country. Putting these budget tips into practice should save you plenty of money to take at least a few top quality tours.

Feel free to add your money-saving tips for Costa Rica in the comments below!

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Costa Rica’s National Parks: Manuel Antonio vs. Cahuita

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Primarily known for its eco-friendly tourism, Costa Rica aims to preserve as many different regions as possible and has over 26 national parks. From mountainous cloud forests to volcanoes, coastline, wetlands and rainforests, the country is bursting with these parks. So when choosing the best, in Costa Rica it isn’t too much to ask for a trifecta – lush, green jungle, wild animals and sandy beaches to lay the afternoon away. Costa Rica has two such national parks: both Manuel Antonio on the Pacific coast and and Cahuita on the Caribbean coast.
Manuel Antonio beach in National Park

While both can boast jungle, wildlife and beach, these are two very different experiences. Despite a $10 entrance fee, Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. Cahuita, on the other hand, costs (next to) nothing to get in, and remains a more off-the-beaten path National Park in comparison. Most travelers don’t have time to hop from coast to coast during a trip to Costa Rica, so read on for a closer look at both to find which might be the right fit for you.

Cahuita national park

Manuel Antonio National Park

At 4,014 acres (16.24 km2), Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s smallest, but certainly most famous national parks in the country. This family-friendly park is located 30 kilometers south of Quepos on the Pacific.

The animals are the main draw at this park and there are plenty of them: four kinds of monkeys, both the three-fingered and the two-fingered sloth, raccoons, pacas, coatis, hundreds of exotic birds, snakes, spiders, iguanas and crabs.
Monkey in Manuel Antonio

With wildlife sightings at Manuel Antonio essentially guaranteed, tourists come in flocks to spot them. Young, old, agile and those moving very slowly all crowd the main paths early in the day, but sneak off to some of the more secluded hiking trails and  you’ll have the forest to yourself. Head back to the beautiful blue beaches, however, and there is no way to escape the crowds, who line the sand, soaking up the sun like a trip to the beaches of Florida or Spain rather than in a protected wildlife reserve.

Manuel Antonio Beach

There are of these smaller paths in the park, including one leading high up to the top of a cliff with expansive views out over the ocean and some of the park’s picture perfect beaches. Plan in a few hours to explore the jungle and spot animals as you go. The monkeys, are alarmingly accustomed to the presence of tourists, here, and have no qualms about coming right up to tourists to get their hands on some chips or cookies. Regardless of the number of people around, families of raccoons are known to walk right up to bags and coolers to snatch food, another good reason to head away from the madness and catch the animals in their natural behavior.

Advantages:

  • Animal spottings 100% guaranteed
  • Pristine beaches
  • Manuel Antonio Flower at the beach

How to get there: From San Jose’s Coca Cola bus terminal (Calle 16 between avenidas 1 and 3) there are three daily buses. The ride takes 3.5 hours. $5.50

Park Admission: $10

Tip No 1: Rent a guide. While we saw plenty of wildlife, guides who work in the park park know the best spots to see wildlife and carry high-tech binoculars to spot monkeys and sloths hiding high up in the trees.
racoon in Manuel Antonio

Tip No 2: Visit early in the morning. If you stay directly in Manuel Antonio, you can get up early and be at the park entrance right at 7am to arrive before the tour buses arrive around 9 or 10.

Cahuita National Park

Cahuita is a sleepy beach town on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, just half an hour from popular Puerto Viejo. The small village has several budget hotels but is practically undeveloped in comparison to Manuel Antonio. The national park at the end of town, which runs parallel to the beach, is not only known the wealth of wildlife on land, but also for its reef which is perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving. Cahuita National Park is also perfect to pop into for a day out on the nearly empty beaches, surfing and sunning. Entry is technically free, but donations are welcome.
Cahuita beach

Enjoy the sounds of the jungle during a walk along the two-mile tourist-free path on the beach. The animals here live in a much more undisturbed environment, which makes them much more shy and harder to spot, so keep an eye or two out for the rich variety of wildlife: howler monkeys, Capuchin monkeys, sloths, toucans, pacas, coatis, raccoons, snakes, various kinds of colorful crabs and hundreds of different kinds of fish and coral for divers. Hire a guide for optimal animal spotting.

Coloured crab in Cahuita Costa Rica

Because the National Park and the town are less developed than Manuel Antonio, exploring is less organized. The start of the park is an easy walk on a wide sandy path, but you will shortly come to a river crossing, which either requires a silly 20 second boat ride across the river, or wading through chest-high water to get to the other side. Get across that, and you will feel like you have the place to yourself.

Cahuita national park jungle

Advantages:

  • No crowds
  • Great for diving & snorkeling
  • Ideal for surfing
  • Free (donations appreciated).

How to get there: From San Jose’s Gran Terminal del Caribe (Calle Central, 1 block north of Avenida 11) there are five buses daily. The ride takes about 4 hours; US$6.50.

Tip: Don’t pay for the boat to cross the river. If you walk on the beach where the river hits the ocean, the river is narrow and shallow enough to be crossed on foot. Just make sure to carry your camera & valuables high up.

National Park Admission: Free

Cahuita beach

Our verdict

There is no clear winner here as both parks are definitely worth a visit. Manuel Antonio has much prettier beaches and more visible wildlife, whereas Cahuita offers more tranquility and allows you to take your time without other tourists. Manuel Antonio feels like a resort and is as much about a day at the beach as about a national park, while Cahuita is heavy on the park, with a beach on the side.
Cahuita sign don't feed the monkeys

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Cycling along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast

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“EEEeee! This is just like Eat Pray Love!” Jaime squealed as we pedaled away from the bike rental shop on our shiny new bikes to explore the Caribbean beaches of the Costa Rican coast. Cheesy as it sounds, I think we all found the experience to be liberating, exhilarating yet completely relaxing.

Jessie & Jaime cycling along Costa Rica's Caribbean coast

We had just met Jaime, the Breakaway Backpacker, in person for the first time the day before in Puerto Viejo, and even though he had not ridden a bicycle for quite a while, he was up for a bike ride along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.

Puerto Viejo beach Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo itself is a fun town and has everything in terms of hotels, bars and restaurants, but the beaches in town pale in comparison to the spots further down the coast. Bikes are available throughout town for US$5 per day, complete with locks and a big basket to hold your beach gear, so we set off by bike along the well-paved coastal road in search of a spot to swim and soak up the sun.

Bicycle rental Puerto Viejo Costa Rica

The road hugs the coast the whole 14km from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo, weaving along from just on the coast to a bit more inland where a glimpse of the beach is only possible through the thick jungle. Although there are patches where potholes are plentiful, the vast majority of the road is absolutely perfect for bike riding, traffic (both bike and car) is minimal, making it possible for us to spend the way out of town chatting away. Other times we rode along in peace and quiet, each enjoying our own little moments of solitude with the sun shining down.

Costa Rica Manzanillo Vendor woman at the beach

Just about a mile outside of town we reached Playa Cocles, and if we had stayed there all day we would have been more than satisfied. The waves here are strong, and we watched surfers and sipped fresh coconut water before heading to Punta Uva, a thirty minute ride further along the coast. From the minute we parked our bikes under the palm trees near the National Park sign, it was clear this beach was our absolute favorite. Beaches rarely get better than this. Set in a bay, the beach in protected by a tropical tree covered cliff which keeps the waves out and the water perfectly flat, nearly motionless. Looking back at the lush jungle while floating freely in the water was invigorating. Despite it being Saturday afternoon and cloud-free skies, we shared the entire beach with no more than 20 people.

Punta Uva beach Costa Rica

We could have stayed here all day, but instead convinced ourselves to take advantage of our fabulous bikes and move on to Manzanillo. Whereas the first part of the road from Puerto Viejo to Punta Uva is lined with spacious hotel properties, a few resorts, high end restaurants, surf shops, and a smattering of cheapie mom and pop restaurants, the second half of the ride is almost entirely through the jungle.

Jungle along the coast in Costa Rica

Along the way, we dismounted just off the road to goggle at hundreds of hand-size Golden Orb spiders hanging in webs that must have taken generations to build. On the way back, in exactly the same place, Jaime squealed a second time, but this time to warn me about the 5 foot long black snake slithering its way across the road.

Golden Orb spider web Costa Rica

Manzanillo has the most Caribbean feeling of all the beaches. This cheerful, colorful little town is populated mainly by English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans living in smaller houses, some on stilts, plus a handful of bars, restaurants and hotels.

Cycling along the Caribbean Coast in Costa Rica

The beach is as long and wide as the town is small – the sprawling sand stretches for miles, but we only had time here for a quick bite in the local soda (simple Costa Rican restaurant), before jumping back on the bike and power-pedalling those 14 hilly kilometres along the road through the jungle, past the spiders, around the snake, back toward Puerto Viejo before sunset.

Manzanillo beach Costa Rica

The road was ours, only passing the occasional car or bike, until we hit Playa Cocles again. Here, we joined a heavy flow of bicycle traffic all heading back to Puerto Viejo, at time five bicycles wide, as groups of tourists on Caribbean holidays joined surfers riding one-handed, clutching their boards under one arm after a day out on the waves. We returned the bikes 8 hours and 28km later, sunburnt, saddle sore and smiled the whole way back to the hostel. A truly life-affirming day indeed.

Manzanillo Soda Dani & Jess & Bikes

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